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Andrew Cockburn
Theory Basics for Guitar


Hi all, and welcome to theory basics. This lesson introduces some of the basic concepts that we will be using in other lessons on the board. There are a lot of words and concepts that the beginner needs to pick up, this is an ideal place to start if you are a beginner, and will give you an insight into some of the language and concepts you need to move onto some of the more complex lessons.

Note Naming and Octaves

Lets start off with how the the notes we all use are named. There are a total of 7 different notes in the scales that are commonly used in Western music. Some but not all notes are split into half notes (see tones and semi-tones later). We name the whole notes after letters of the alphabet, starting at A and moving through to G. At G we circle back around to A again. Once we have moved through 8 whole notes and got back to where we started from, the notes sound the same but higher. The notes with the same name are an Octave apart. Notes that are an octave apart are equivalent in musical function, they just sound higher or lower. In fact, if two notes are an octave apart, the higher note will have twice the frequency of the lower note. Its called an octave because there are 8 notes in total, including the equivalent notes at the beginning and end of the sequence. The doubling in frequency between notes an Octave apart points to something in our nervous system that finds this relationship sensible and pleasant to listen to, so we organise our musical scales around this concept.

Flats and Sharps, Tones and Semi-tones

I said that there 8 whole notes - it turns out that we also need half notes to play any possible tune. By convention in western music, we place half notes between all of the whole notes except for 2 specific pairs - E,F and B,C. Why do we do this? It all stems form the way that Major scales are constructed, which you can read about in later lessons, here. We construct scales from a mixture of half and whole notes depending on the scale, and use of 8 whole notes along with some half notes gives us the flexibility to do this. Remember that music notation has developed over many thousands of years, so doesn't necessarily make perfect sense, but it soon becomes second nature when you start working with it.

The half notes are called semi-tones, and the whole notes are called tones. We have 2 ways to refer to the semitones. We can figure them by raising a semi-tone from a particular note, which we call a sharp, and we use the '#' sign to denote this. Or, we can figure the note by stepping down a semitone from a higher note - we call this a flat, and use the 'b' to denote this. So, we can talk about the notes A and B, and the note in between them which we could call A# or Bb.

Remember above when I said that certain pairs of notes do not have a semitone between them? Another way of saying this is that there is no such note as E#, or B#, or using the flat notation, Fb and Cb do not exist.

(Side note : Actually there are some unusual circumstances in which we talk about E#, B#, Fb and Cb, but these are really notational devices, and don't refer to additional notes. We will learn about this later).

So you should now see that there are actually 12 distinct semi-tones in an octave (we usually say 13 because we count the octave note as well). These are: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab and back to A again making 13. In Western music, no other notes than these exist, and every song written uses a combination of these in various octaves, so a tune or melody is simply a sequence of semi-tones A-G# spaced apart and with some notion of rythym so that they are not all equally spaced.

Why 12 Semitones? Why not more or less? The simple answer is convention. Western music settled on the 8 note scale a long time ago, and uses half notes as the fundamental basis for all music. Some cultures use quarter notes in their scales, but they sound strange to western ears. Occasionally on guitar we use quarter note bends to add emphasis and phrasing, especially in blues, but we do not construct scales out of them

Notes on the Guitar

Next, it might be a good idea to learn where all of these notes are on a guitar. Fortunately, its easy to work out with some basic knowledge. Owing to the fact that there are 6 strings on the guitar, and they are all tuned differently, and the fact that the notes repeat when you get to an octave, there are many places you can play a given note on a guitar. It all starts with knowing the notes made by the open strings. An open string is what we call a string that is played without the left hand pressing on it anywhere to fret a note. By contrast a fretted note (we would often say something like "play the 3rd fret") is a note in which you left hand presses down on the string in between the frets, forcing the string to rest against a fret and play a higher note.

So, what are the open strings? Starting from the highest (and thinnest) string and moving upwards (upwards because you are looking down at the guitar), the notes are E, B, G, D, A, E - remember this! Another way of reffering to the strings is by number. The thin E string is called the first string, the B string is called the second string, and so on, to the 6th E string.

Now, how do we make the rest of the notes? Very simple, you just fret the string and play it.

How do we figure out what the notes are? The rule is simple. Moving up a fret means you move up a semitone. Lets play a G. How can we do that? The easiest way is to play the open G or 3rd string, but there are many other options, and you can play one or more G notes on each string. Lets take the first string. We know that open it is an E, so at the 1st fret it is an F (no E# remember?). The 2nd fret would be an F#. The 3rd fret would be ... G! That was easy, lets try another.

Starting on the B string - B, C (no B#), C#, D, D#, E, F (no E#), F#, G - so that is the 8th fret.

Just for completeness, here are all the notes on the fretboard:

Click to view attachment

That's all there is to it! Its worth while memorizing all of the notes on the fretboard, it wil help you later on.

Scales and Keys

Scales are the foundation of Western music - and a scale is nothing but an arrangement of notes! To make up a scale, we take a selection of notes from the list I gave you earlier and arrange them in ascending order. It is the spacing of the notes in a scale that gives it a character that is imposed on the song. Once we have a scale, we use it to select notes for the tune of the song, and use it to make chords out of, so as you can see, the idea of a scale underlies everything we do musically. A lot of songs will have one scale throughout but there is nothing stopping you from using as many scales as you want in a song.

Since there are so many possible combinations of all of the notes ahown above, we tend to organize scales into families, and use a formula for each family. For instance, the formula for a major scale is actually the spacings between the notes in the scale, and is discussed in the Major scale lesson here. Once you have a formula for a scale type, you can use it with any starting note to get 12 variations. Examples of scale families are Major, Minor, Minor Pentatonic - we might talk about a C major scale, a Bb Minor scale or an A minor pentatonic scale. There are literally hundreds of different scale types, but don't worry, I just mentioned the 3 most common, and its perfectly possible to be an acomplished musician if you only ever learn those 3 variations. However, scales are extremely important, and if you want to be a decent guitarist you need to put in the time to learn these and other scales and be able to play them quickly and cleanly without thinking about it.

A key is best understood initially as a scale family type along with the note you are starting the scale from. So keys could be A Major, B Minor etc. In fact, we usually only use the major and minor scale types to denote a key. A key is different from a scale in that it defines the tonal centre of a piece of music - that is to say the chord that the song keeps returning to. It is possble to use different scales and chords in passing in a piece, yet remain in the original key.

Chords

Chords are simply a number of notes played together at the same time. They are usually strummed on the guitar (strumming means taking your pick and playing all of the notes in the chord together with a simple downward or upward sweep, so the notes sound as near to simultaneously as possible). There are many different chord types- chords have their own rules for construction, using specific selections of notes from a scale. Again, like scales, chords have families, and the 2 most common are Major and Minor - so named because their notes are selected from Major and Minor scales respectively. Actually that is a slight simplification as we will see in later lessons, but it is enough to give you the idea for now.

That's it for today - hopefully that should have given you some basic concepts which we will build on in later lessons. If you have any questions I'll see you on the forum!

Thanks to Javari for supplying the awesome fretboard diagram!


Editorial note: published 2007-12-10
mattacuk
great Lesson Andrew, I wish Id had a lesson like this to read 9 months ago. Im sure our new members will benifit greatly! smile.gif
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (mattacuk @ May 5 2007, 01:08 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
great Lesson Andrew, I wish Id had a lesson like this to read 9 months ago. Im sure our new members will benifit greatly! smile.gif


Thanks Matt, that's praise indeed from someone who appreciates theory as you do smile.gif
rokchik
Anyone who joins this site should have to read this lesson before doing anything else!!!!

It is a very important lesson in terms of understanding what you are actually doing when playing guitar or just music in general. I know there is lots more theory out there to learn but this lesson gives you the starting blocks and basics so you at least know what the notes on the fret board are.

Great job Andrew!!!!!
Pavel
This is a great start for a beginner so i think maybe Kris should create a link on main page called "Theory for beginners" - would be nice for beginners to see that they are not lost here! ... just an idea...
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (Pavel @ May 18 2007, 03:33 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
This is a great start for a beginner so i think maybe Kris should create a link on main page called "Theory for beginners" - would be nice for beginners to see that they are not lost here! ... just an idea...


Thanks guys - great idea Pavel, I'll drop Kris a line.
Climate
I know this is recommended for beginners, but I've actually been playing for a couple of years now but my theory sucks - this helped me out, and I'm gonna start working through all of the theory lessons wink.gif

Cheers Andrew smile.gif
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (Climate @ May 24 2007, 04:06 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I know this is recommended for beginners, but I've actually been playing for a couple of years now but my theory sucks - this helped me out, and I'm gonna start working through all of the theory lessons wink.gif

Cheers Andrew smile.gif


Cool smile.gif
signularis
i hope i ever will remember it lol
ibanez rocker
Awesome lesson andrew about basic music theory for guitar.biggrin.gif it helped me understand a little more about music theory. keep up the good work. i recommend that all beginners need to read it before starting anything else.











[/quote] a great musician once said" practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!" biggrin.gif
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (ibanez rocker @ Jun 10 2007, 09:47 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Awesome lesson andrew about basic music theory for guitar.biggrin.gif it helped me understand a little more about music theory. keep up the good work. i recommend that all beginners need to read it before starting anything else.
a great musician once said" practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!" biggrin.gif


Glad you liked it smile.gif
Smikey2006
My Theory Journey has begun, i read this lession and already i feel like i understand a bit more biggrin.gif. Thanks for the great basics lession, has really helped me out.
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (Smikey2006 @ Jul 3 2007, 11:24 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
My Theory Journey has begun, i read this lession and already i feel like i understand a bit more biggrin.gif. Thanks for the great basics lession, has really helped me out.


Another lost, theoryless soul starts on the road to enlightrnment - gotta love it smile.gif Let me know if you have any questions at all!
Smikey2006
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Jul 3 2007, 11:51 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Another lost, theoryless soul starts on the road to enlightrnment - gotta love it smile.gif Let me know if you have any questions at all!


Thanks Andrew and don't worry ... ill have plenty of questions biggrin.gif
jammer91
QUOTE (Pavel @ May 18 2007, 11:33 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
This is a great start for a beginner so i think maybe Kris should create a link on main page called "Theory for beginners" - would be nice for beginners to see that they are not lost here! ... just an idea...


Yeah that would really really help cause most of time i read a theory lesson and im like WHAT?

Itll be easier to understand theory if you go step by step or it will tick you off if you venture in to advanced stuff at an early stage

QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Jul 3 2007, 07:51 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Another lost, theoryless soul starts on the road to enlightrnment - gotta love it smile.gif Let me know if you have any questions at all!


This is what i find weird nowadays. People dont really understand theory so they just label it as theory is for losers!!! (I was one of them till i joined GMC, and moreover till i viewed this lesson). I think it is important than you guys have a beginner theory section to set us noobs off in the right path....
Eat-Sleep-andJam
I second that, this theory lesson helped me GREATLY.



Couldnt thank you enough.


-John biggrin.gif biggrin.gif biggrin.gif biggrin.gif
preownedguitar
Starting on the B string - B, C (no B#), C#, D, D#, E, F (no F#), G - so that is the 8th fret.

Was just wondering if the (no F#) is a typo, and supposed to be "(no E#)"?

And I guess that would change that whole line because F# is left out?

So:

Starting on the B string - B, C (no B#), C#, D, D#, E, F (no E#), F#, G - so that is the 8th fret.
Lurgen
This post should be mandatory reading for all newcomers to the site. Nice work Andrew.
Asphyxia Feeling
whoa never thought of it, but all the theory lessons are kinda freebies for non-gmcers. just at this moment, there are 18 guests viewing this topic! ohmy.gif
Kaneda
QUOTE (preownedguitar @ Jul 16 2007, 06:36 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Starting on the B string - B, C (no B#), C#, D, D#, E, F (no F#), G - so that is the 8th fret.

Was just wondering if the (no F#) is a typo, and supposed to be "(no E#)"?

And I guess that would change that whole line because F# is left out?

So:

Starting on the B string - B, C (no B#), C#, D, D#, E, F (no E#), F#, G - so that is the 8th fret.


You're absolutely right - I'm sure Andrew will fix this typo in a jiffy smile.gif
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (Kaneda @ Jul 16 2007, 05:52 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
You're absolutely right - I'm sure Andrew will fix this typo in a jiffy smile.gif


Fixed - thanks smile.gif
Ped
None has never explained me this subject so clearly...really a great theory lesson!!
francesco
great lesson

It's quite hard for me to learn note in this way becaus we have different name for them in Italy :
DO = C , RE=D , MI=E , FA=F , SOL=G , LA=A , SI=B ...
so every time I've to remember "traslation" smile.gif

Do you know why in Italy we have this difference ??

Ciao
Francesco
Kaneda
QUOTE (francesco @ Sep 14 2007, 06:30 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
great lesson

It's quite hard for me to learn note in this way becaus we have different name for them in Italy :
DO = C , RE=D , MI=E , FA=F , SOL=G , LA=A , SI=B ...
so every time I've to remember "traslation" smile.gif

Do you know why in Italy we have this difference ??

Ciao
Francesco


It's just convention. The Do-Re-Mi "Solfege" is most likely older than the C D E notation - it descends from a hymn, where those syllables were the first in each phrase (except Do was called Ut - changed it to be easier to sing). Pretty much all non-mediterranean countries went with the C D E notation. Italy, Spain, France etc. went with Do Re Mi.

The rest of us only use Do-Re-Mi for sight reading, and here, "Do" isn't necessarily "C" - it's just the tonic of the scale we're singing in, if the song is in major. It could be any fixed note - D, E, F#, whatever.

Non-English-speaking countries have another problem - we tend to call "B" "H", and "Bb" "B" (often we use "Bb", though, to avoid thinking "B" means "H")
Mrblomme
This is a very good theory lesson.
I'm now at school at this moment but i'm done with a test of informatics so I learned a lesson at GMC. biggrin.gif
PlayAllDay
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ May 1 2007, 06:57 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Theory Basics for Guitar


Remember above when I said that certain pairs of notes do not have a semitone between them? Another way of saying this is that there is no such note as E#, or B#, or using the flat notation, Fb and Cb do not exist.


Andrew I love how you have been as clear as possible about a very confusing subject here
and I would not want to confuse a theory beginner any more than they need to be tongue.gif
but praps a short note to the effect that E#, B#, Fb and Cb certainly do exist as note names within scales at a more advanced level would be best...
Otherwise people will be claiming that it is not possible to have an E# at all ever... ohmy.gif
Andrew Cockburn
Good point - I made a change along those lines - thanks!
Grimjoura
WoW !

Greatest Theory lesson i ever read.

Short, effective and not anoying as the stuff the teachers tortured us with in schooldays...

Maximum Points for ┬┤ya, Andrew an my biggest thanks too!

Thomas aka Grimjoura
Andrew Cockburn
Glad you liked it smile.gif
demonmyst
So far so good. I'm learning a lot of beginner stuff I should have learned years ago.... I love GMC <3
signularis
i hope i learn this smile.gif
caseywa70
when I first laid my hands on a guitar I wanted to be able to say, "yeah, I can play that song". after joining CMC & reading your theory lessons my focus has changed extremely. I want to know every square inch of my guitar & these lessons are giving me the tools to do just that. thanks andrew.
Andrew Cockburn
Glad to be of service smile.gif
-Zion-
hey andrew.

Nice lesson.. thanx.. i just joined this site today, having played guitar for a while, having a long break, and now coming back to it.. I was actually thinking about going directly to the guitar riffs sections, but opted them out for some theory.
I never had any theory at all since im a self taught guitar player, but i always thought something was missing.. Im gonna go through all your lessons now.. Especially if the rest of them are as good as this one..

Great work. Keep it up,
David
Andrew Cockburn
Great! Let me know if you have any questions smile.gif
BM
That was a very helpful! I do have one question though. What are those notes written in parenthese? Without them I see the 8 notes. Thanks
Andrew Cockburn
Hi there - not sure which notes you mean, are you talking about B#, E# etc?
BM
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Aug 14 2008, 12:44 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Hi there - not sure which notes you mean, are you talking about B#, E# etc?

Yep lol. Those are the ones.
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (BM @ Aug 14 2008, 03:20 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Yep lol. Those are the ones.


They are notes that don't exist in regular scales. (There are exceptions but save that for later, and just remember that the note after B is a C, not B#, same for all the others).

In total that should actually give you 12 notes:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# (see, no B# or E#)

Since any sharp can also be called a flat under certain circumstances, you could also write this as

A Bb B C Cb D Db E F Fb G Gb (see, no Fb or Cb)

This is really a naming convention and doesn't affect the notes at all - they are all 1 semitone different.

Now, given that fact, if you tried to flatten an F, you would get an E, so you could view Fb as the same note as an E, we just don't call it that except in rare cases.Similarly, in frequency terms:

B# = C
E# = F
Cb = B

But B#, E#, Fb, Cb are rarely ever referred to as they have more common names above.
adriduran81
very good lesson!! i hope learn the basics!!!
Bagrar
Great lesson! you really helped me in the right direction when you told me to look on the theory boards! thx a LOT...
ps: was hard to understand the 'scales' part but the rest really made some sense of it!
Bluesberry
Who cares if no one's answered this for a long time? biggrin.gif

Awesome, Mr. Cockburn! I'm very happy to have this kind of a theory board right here under my nose. I've been looking for good theory books from the library, but they all seem to have one of the following weaknesses: they don't explain everything they say, they start from the very beginning but then skip the essential parts and start babbling about diatones and stuff, or are BORING! Your theory lessons have none of these annoying sides. Thank you! cool.gif
kingpatzer
I think this is a maybe a bit harder to understand because it is so easy to conflating two different concepts. And maybe I'm taking this deeper than is appropriate for this forum, but . . .

There are only 12 tones in a chromatic scale. Those 12 tones have a multitude of names. That is to say they can be NOTATED in many different names.

The tone is what is heard, the note is what it is called.

So you can play the open second string in standard tuning, and the tone you hear is most commonly the tone we notate as the 'B' notated as the note 2 notes above high G on a standard clef (guitar music is actually transposed relative to the tone as played on a standard clef.)

No matter what we call that tone, it doesn't change. But we can call that tone A##, B, Cb, Dbb, and so on.

There is absolutely a Cb and an E#. It is true that this type of notation is almost never, ever used. But those are still valid note names.

By separating the concept of tone from the concept of notation can make theory much, much easier. Because the same tones are called different things depending on context. This is true of chords (a collection of tones) as well. The collection of tones C E and A can be C major, A minor, Fmaj7, and many other names depending on context and what the other instruments might be playing.

When speaking about theory, we're speaking about notation 99% of the time. What something is called is dependent upon context. What something sounds like is dependent upon what is played. We don't play theory, we play music. Theory is a post-hoc attempt to explain and describe what we play.

Instead of saying that B# only exists in special circumstances, it strikes me as a bit clearer to delineate between what we hear (which relates to where we play it on the fretboard) and what we call it.
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